In a rare and highly commendable move that has sent out a strong message to the Indian scientific community, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research has dismissed a senior scientist working at its Chandigarh-based Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTECH) over serious charges of data fabrication in at least seven papers published in peer-reviewed journals. At least three papers published in 2013 in the journal PLOS ONE were retracted once preliminary investigation carried out at IMTECH revealed that the data were cooked up. Though Swaranjit Singh Cameotra was not directly involved in data fabrication, his complicity in the scientific misconduct became clear. The scale of misconduct by Dr. Cameotra is way lower in comparison to the South Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk and the Japanese stem cell researcher Haruko Obokata, but it is nevertheless significant. A senior member is responsible for data produced by his team. As the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) has laid down, being complicit in multiple instances of scientific misconduct merits firm action. An editor of one of the retracted papers said the reviewers were unable to spot the fabrication as the “data appeared solid”, though all the three papers had the same theme of a bacterium isolated from a natural environment metabolising certain chemicals. It is, however, quite surprising that no one at IMTECH suspected any foul play as the scientist published 15 papers in 2013.
The only bright spot in the otherwise sorry episode has been IMTECH’s readiness and willingness to get to the root of the problem rather than brushing the allegations under the carpet, as many scientific institutions in India regularly do. One of the biggest handicaps that journal editors face when confronted with evidence of scientific misconduct by Indian researchers is non-cooperation by institutions in thoroughly investigating such matters. This is the reason why certain fraudulent practices by Indian scientists have seldom been exposed. One of the best ways to tackle this ill is to set up a nodal body on the lines of the ORI in the U.S. Any case of scientific misconduct brought to its notice should be investigated by the respective institutions and the matter taken to its logical conclusion. A body on the lines of the ORI should also be actively involved in “preventing misconduct and promoting research integrity through expanded education programmes”. This will go a long way in reducing instances of misconduct by scientists. It will also greatly help to reduce the amount of trash that sullies scientific literature and prevent other serious researchers from wasting their time repeating meaningless experiments.